Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
Transcendent Kingdom traces Gifty’s life from her childhood in an evangelical religion to her postdoc career in neuroscience, seamlessly weaving together most of the big life themes: faith, science, family, and health. Throughout the novel, author Yaa Gyasi reinforces the idea that the frameworks of science and religion aren’t as polar as they might appear. “I still have so many of the same questions,” Gifty says, “but I am looking for a different way to answer them.”
Faith and science don’t always provide the same answers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t (in certain ways) coexist. Gifty points out the shortfalls of both systems when they remain ignorant of the other: “I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak.” This kind of flattening fails to recognize that both faith and science are rooted in valuable principles. But, like anything humans touch, they can become warped. In the face of her brother’s struggle with addiction, her mother’s depression, and the brutally casual racism her family faces as Ghanaian immigrants in the American South, Gifty turns her life into an experiment in survival. When religion doesn’t work, she turns to science. But neither one is a panacea for the fundamental human predicament of figuring out how to live.
After she leaves her hometown and childhood church, Gifty approaches the construction of her life with an almost scientific rigor. Per Rilke, Gifty is ‘living the questions,’ and refusing to succumb to any of the easy answers. Some of the sharpest parts of the book are where she punctures the facile thinking that characterizes addicts as weak people, or assumes that degrees from expensive universities prove intelligence or strength of mind. But the book’s most impressive feat is that, for all of Gifty’s smart observations, her interior dialogue is also emotionally lucid, encompassing compassion, hope, and doubt.
Transcendent Kingdom has stayed with me for its depiction of an everyday battle between reason and emotion: Gifty at times self-sabotages, in the way so many of us do, by staying locked in the comfortable cage of fear. But she also keeps learning how to make her own experimental way in the world. Gyasi does an excellent job exploring all the ways we cope with reality in its irrational unfairness, and all the ways we find to heal ourselves.
If you like it
If you don’t
Try Mary Chase’s Harvey, which provides a delightfully silly and touching way to cope with reality (or watch the 1950 movie with Jimmy Stewart).
Things I’ve written lately: